IT SEEMS THAT within the kind of art world that I have just evoked, an art world that would not be built on aesthetic exceptionalism, the Toporovski affair with which I started this book is nearly unthinkable. If I evoke such an art world, it is not because I want to offer a plea for indifference in the debate about the original and the copy or because I want to get rid of artists altogether. Rather, it is because it seems to me—and I hope I have made this clear along the way—that the Toporovski affair and the aesthetic exceptionalism that produces it also point to an economic and political exceptionalism in the arts that ought to be considered. How close is the aesthetic preference for the original, for example, and the aesthetic exceptionalism of such a preference—which extends into the exceptionalism of the artist—to Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, and its politics? How close is it to the economic exceptionalism of art that lies at the basis of the art market—of art’s exorbitant prices and of the use of art, even, as a contemporary investment strategy?
Supposedly, the works from the Toporovski collection were removed from the Museum for Fine Arts in Ghent on art historical and pedagogical grounds, because questions had been raised about the authenticity of the works and because the general public may have been lied to about the works when they were exhibited in a public (and publicly funded) institution. But one has to wonder whether the public (and publicly funded) exhibition of forgeries is not also unthinkable because such an exhibition would undermine the economic and political order of the art world, if not Western thought more generally? If that were to be the case—and I have suggested it is—what does the Toporovski affair tell us about the economic and political order of the art world (and perhaps of the West more generally), and about how that world is in the last instance structured by a certain kind of sovereignty and exceptionalism?
If the work of Carl Schmitt is a key reference in this conversation, I have also tried to nuance its role in it both by diversifying our understanding of Schmitt and by pointing out that “Schmitt” does not have the monopoly over the exception. It is possible to distinguish different kinds of exceptionalisms. And perhaps it is possible to stay within the limits of the Toporovski affair, to accept its condition (the attachment to the original), and mobilize such an exceptionalism for democratic purposes. But it seems to me that a democratic debate about aesthetic exceptionalism did not take place in the context of this affair. In other words, at no point was it asked whether, if the Toporovski collection consisted of forgeries that were actually good paintings—an aesthetic judgment that is obviously always up for debate, in excess of the issue of originality—it would have been conceivable to show those paintings at the museum.
Would it? Or would it not?
If not—and I expect that “No” would be the resonant answer—then what is the aesthetic, economic, and political philosophy of art that is upheld here? Can such a philosophy be called democratic? Or should it quite simply be recognized that the art world is aesthetically, economically, and politically an oligarchic and plutocratic environment—in other words, that it is profoundly antidemocratic? This is one way of saying that when it comes to curator Catherine de Zegher’s eye, it might have failed within a Western perspective, within the logic of aesthetic exceptionalism (the analysis of the works that were on display will have to provide the evidence for this). But it also might not have failed from that other point of view that I have sought to develop: it might not have failed outside of aesthetic exceptionalism. In other words, the works shown at the museum were perhaps not what they were presented to be, and of course that ought to be corrected. But they might be interesting works, still. Is it a democratic element in art that makes the latter judgment impossible? Or something else?
In her own account of the Toporovski affair, de Zegher concludes that she speaks for those who love beauty and truth. But the latter—truth—is not necessarily tied to the former—beauty. Part of the issue is how the two come together in a scientific aesthetic institution like a museum, where one expects to encounter both the beautiful and the true. Even if the works in question turn out not to be true, they can still be beautiful, and therefore could still conceivably be worthy of exhibition in a scientific institution, as long as they are presented truthfully. Can we imagine this openness in the museum? If not, what does this tell us about the economics and politics of the museum as an institution?
Byung-Chul Han does not draw political conclusions from his work on Chinese deconstruction, but his thought about de-creation can be developed in such a direction. In the “final” volume of the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer series, which lays bare the fundamental biopolitical operation of sovereignty (its internal exclusion or exception of what Agamben after Walter Benjamin calls “bare life” within the limits of the polis, thus turning the polis into a camp), Agamben describes a kind of power—or perhaps better, potential—that he dubs “destituent.” With this notion, Agamben wants to take on precisely the sovereign exceptionalism that I have associated with Schmitt. In the earlier volumes of his project, Agamben had traced such an exceptionalism back to the fact that the Greeks, in his analysis, had two words for life: zoe, or the simple fact of living shared by animals, humans, and gods; and bios, which refers to the qualified life of an individual or group—ethical or political life. The tragedy of Western power, as Agamben sees it, is played out in the dynamic between those two notions of life, with for example political protection being granted to living subjects as an addition to their zoe, thus including zoe within the sphere of bios only by virtue of its exclusion.
Agamben understands this internal exclusion to be an exception, and refers to the general state in which such a political logic is the case as “the state of exception.” Whereas the latter, in Schmitt, tends to be associated with emergency situations, according to Agamben it has become the rule in contemporary Western societies. If the concentration camp is an extreme example of such a state, where its underlying logic is unsparingly laid bare, modern political societies have in fact continued to operate according to this rule, which is the rule of the exception. According to Agamben, the only way out of such a situation is to neutralize the vicious dynamic between zoe and bios, between the simple fact of living and its form, life and the form of life. To accomplish this, he develops in The Use of Bodies the enigmatic notion of form-of-life (with the hyphens), which had already come up at various other places in Agamben’s work.
If the separation between zoe and bios can be traced back to a hylemorphic Aristotelian ontology (an ontology that is founded in the distinction between matter and form), as Agamben convincingly argues, form-of-life is meant to displace the basic opposition of that ontology by “contract[ing] into one another in a peremptory gesture” the notions of zoe and bios, thus “taking leave of classical politics.” In Agamben’s view, this “points toward an unheard-of politicization of life as such”:
The wager here is that there can be a bios, a mode of life, that is defined solely by means of its special and inseparable union with zoe and has no other content than the latter (and reciprocally, that there is a zoe that is nothing other than its form, its bios). Precisely and solely to the bios and zoe thus transfigured do there belong the attributes of political life: happiness and autarchy.
It is this new form of contract theory (as I have characterized it elsewhere) that Agamben finds in form-of-life (with the hyphens marking the contraction, visualizing it on the page).
Exceptionalism, for Agamben, can thus be traced back to the dynamic between zoe and bios. Translated into aesthetic exceptionalism, I want to propose an analogy with the dynamic between the original and the copy, with the museum—in parallel to modern Western states—emerging as what Agamben calls a camp, where works (zoe) are only included by virtue of their being labeled original and authentic (bios), an inclusion that truly operates as an internal exclusion or exception given that when works—even if they are good works—are exposed to be forgeries, they will be removed from the museum. Here, it becomes clear that the distinction between a good and bad work of art ultimately operates in a way different from that between the original and the copy. Whereas the former comes about by subjective determination, whether individual or collective, the latter can be objectively determined. As such the logic of exceptionalism is much more effective in the latter than in the former, even if traces of the exceptional are of course retained in any aesthetic judgment.
A further analogy that can be made, looking back at my discussion of Alex Robbins’s “Complements” but also looking ahead at the next part of this book (in which Agamben’s work will be central), is to the dynamic between nudity and clothing, with zoe being nudity and clothing, bios—something that I have laid out already in a different context.
I want to underline with respect to the distinction between aesthetic judgment (good art versus bad art) and the question of the original versus the copy, that there are other aspects of the work of art that operate like the aesthetic judgment in relation to aesthetic exceptionalism—in other words, other aspects of the work of art that unwork aesthetic exceptionalism. For example, in his auto-fictional novel 10:04, Ben Lerner takes inspiration from Elka Krajewska’s “Salvage Art Institute” to create a character called Alena who with an artist friend called Peter has started an institute that collects and intends to display for public viewing “totaled” art, i.e., art that has somehow been damaged and, as a result, has been declared to have “zero value.” In some cases, the damage is visible, even to the untrained eye. But in others—and those will turn out to be the cases that most interest the novel’s narrator, as Nicholas Brown has pointed out—it is not. That begs the question of what exactly caused the artwork to be labeled as “damaged.” Whatever the case might be, “totaled” artworks are works that “were formally demoted from art to mere objecthood and banned from circulation, removed from the market.”
It is probably no coincidence that when 10:04’s narrator visits Alena’s institute, he is handed “the pieces of a shattered Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture.” “It was wonderful,” he notes, “to see an icon of art world commercialism and valorized stupidity shattered.” When Alena picks up one of the smaller pieces from the narrator’s hand “and hurled it onto the hardwood, where it shattered,” she hissed “It’s worth nothing.” The declaration gains part of its power from the fact that Koons is one of the most expensive living artists. The visit to the Institute for Totaled Art has a profound effect on 10:04’s narrator. Contemplating a Cartier-Bresson that is part of Alena’s collection, he notes:
It had transitioned from being a repository of immense financial value to being declared of zero value without undergoing what was to me any perceptible material transformation—it was the same, only totally different. This was a reversal of the kind of recontextualization associated with Marcel Duchamp, still—unfortunately, in my opinion—the tutelary spirit of the art world; this was the opposite of the “readymade” whereby an object of utility—a urinal, a shovel—was transformed into an object of art and an art commodity by the artist’s fiat, by his signature. It was the reversal of that process . . . 
Koons is the primary target of that process, but the novel also mentions Damien Hirst.
The reference to Duchamp is worth pursuing given my discussion of Duchamp in the previous chapter. For we gain here a deeper understanding of what Robbins is doing with Duchamp in “Complements”: if Duchamp’s readymades, according to Lerner’s narrator, were about putting an object of utility in the museum and thereby transforming it into an art object, the Institute for Totaled Art is about turning an art object into an object of utility, thereby opening up its monarchic form onto democratic use. I am not sure I agree with Lerner’s narrator’s assessment of Duchamp. It seems doubtful, based on what I said about Duchamp in the previous chapter, that his project was indeed to turn utility objects into art. The goal was never to make an original and to get an original into the museum, to get it recognized as art. Instead, especially in view of Duchamp’s later assessment of the readymades as always already a replica, it seems that Duchamp’s basic gesture was always already what Lerner’s narrator considers to be a reversal. Duchamp was always already reversing; as a home for his work, there was never anything other than the Institute for Totaled (which I would read as “deconstructed” rather than “destructed,” as per my discussion of Derrida previously) Art.
Clearly, what fascinates 10:04’s narrator is not so much the valuation of the artwork but its devaluation, or better (as will become clear in a moment) revaluation: how can the artwork be removed from the art market? It’s worth noting that the author captures those questions in capitalist terms. He describes the artwork’s removal from the art market as an artwork no longer being “a commodity fetish; it was art before or after capital”—that is part of his fascination with it. He also explicitly gives this before or after a messianic dimension: in Alena’s project, art is “saved from something” “in the messianic sense,” “saved for something”:
An art commodity that had been exorcised (and survived the exorcism) of the fetishism of the market was to me a utopian readymade—an object for or from the future where there was some other regime of value than the tyranny of price.
The author is overwhelmed by the genius of this revaluation, of this other regime of value. Ultimately, Alena’s art and what it accomplishes are associated with the alternative messianism that the author finds in Benjamin: everything will be as it is now, just a little different. As Lerner himself makes clear in his acknowledgments, this is a line from Benjamin that Lerner actually comes in across in the work of . . . Giorgio Agamben.
Everything operates here, in other words, within the sphere of Agamben’s thought and the movement toward form-of-life that would break down the dynamic between zoe and bios. Lerner enables us to see one way in which such a movement can already be found within the existing art world, through his engagement with the Institute for Totaled Art. It may just as well have been called the Institute for Unexceptional Art: it’s art still, and it clearly retains a trace of the exceptional. But within the aesthetic exceptionalism that structures the art market, it is profoundly unexceptional. And it is of course as such that Lerner’s narrator finds it interesting: as unexceptional art that stands outside of the art world’s aesthetic and economic logic.
With Agamben—but this partly lies concealed in Lerner as well, whose novel is generally considered to be about the contemporary neoliberal moment—we are propelled toward a political reading of such an “outside.” The unexceptional would need to be conceived, in Agamben’s terms, as a kind of “destituent potential” that would unwork the Aristotelian ontology underlying Western politics—an ontology that is very much present in the valuation of the original over the copy that structures the Western art world, its aesthetics, economics, and politics. For Agamben, it is “destituent potential” that unworks political exceptionalism of the kind that can be found in Schmitt. This involves, he suggests, “think[ing] entirely different strategies”: it is not about “revolutions, revolts, and new constitutions,” the dynamic between constituting and constituted power. When it comes to bringing “destituent potential” in conversation with an already existing political name, the closest Agamben comes to that is in his turn toward “anarchy,” toward an “anarchist tradition” that has “sought to define [destituent power] without truly succeeding in it.” In a way, Agamben can be considered to be taking up that anarchist project, even if in the closing pages of The Use of Bodies that particular challenge ultimately remains undeveloped. Indeed, the book reads not so much as a concluding volume to a series but as a text in which the project of the series is “abandoned,” as Agamben puts it in a prefatory note.
In order to pursue this suggestion of an “anarchist” politics a little further, let me loop back to the political references that were used at the beginning of this book. Schmitt, and by association a thinker like Badiou, is inconceivable within what Han calls “Chinese thought” (no matter Badiou’s love for Mao). However, and this is where I would counter the reading that Steven Corcoran provides of his thought (see chapter 1), Rancière could perhaps still fit, given that he claims to reconceptualize the exception precisely not as Badiou’s grand rupture. Possibly recognizing the potential problems of Badiou’s thinking on this count, Rancière has in an interview insisted that if there is an exception in his theory, it is different from Badiou’s theory of the event: for him the exception is always ordinary, he insists, coming “not out of a decision or out of a radical rupture” but out of a “multiplicity of small displacements.” This resonates with the work of Bonnie Honig and the exceptionalism of the ordinary that she defends. Rancière’s theory of transformation marks, in that sense, a “Chinese” or “Buddhist” unworking of a Western theologico-political thought of rupture.
It is interesting how the notion of “anarchy” appears in this context. When in his “Ten Theses on Politics” Rancière seeks to characterize “democracy,” he mentions Cleisthenes’s famous democratic experiment, wherein “democracy is characterized by the drawing of lots, or the complete absence of any entitlement to govern. It is the state of exception in which no oppositions can function, in which there is no principle for the dividing up of roles. . . . Democracy is the specific situation in which it is the absence of entitlement that entitles one to exercise the archè.” Rancière takes this exceptionalist understanding of democracy from Plato’s Laws, in which Plato “undertakes a systematic inventory of the qualifications (axiomata) required for governing and the correlative qualifications for being ruled.” Plato retains seven, four of which (Rancière notes) are based on “natural difference, that is, the difference of birth.” “The fifth qualification . . . is the power of those with a superior nature, of the strong over the weak.” The sixth, which Plato considers most worthy, is that of “the power of those who know over those who do not”—hence, his preference for philosopher-kings. But, Rancière notes, Plato adds a seventh qualification that produces what he considers a “break in the logic of the arkhè.” Plato calls this seventh qualification “the choice of God” or “the drawing of lots.”
This is how Rancière arrives at his understanding of democracy as “the state of exception.” If such a democratic state is “anarchic,” this is not because of its total absence of archè, but because it produces a break in the logic of archè, in that it turns the absence of the entitlement to rule into the entitlement to rule—into a “commencement without commencement, a form of rule (commandement) that does not command.” In other words: there is rule, but not as before. This is a state of exception, as Rancière sees it, but one “that more generally makes politics in its specificity possible.” This is why democracy for Rancière is not so much a political regime but the name of politics as such. Democracy, like politics, is what produces a break within the logic of ruling as such. This has something to do with the particular anarchy that it brings. Anarchy, then, does not so much refer to the absence of all rule but to the democratic break in the logic of a rule that is exercised by one “determinate superiority” over “an equally determinate inferiority.” It refers to the rule of equality. In other words: Rancière claims democracy as anarchic and in that sense as politics due to its rule of equality, its rule that is based on the absence of any entitlement to rule. While such a position obviously marks a kind of shock, and an exception in this sense—it does, after all, accomplish a break in the logic of the arkhè—it is worth noting that such a shock or exception does not do away with all rule. Indeed, it is folded back within the rule—a wholly transformed rule.
It is no wonder that Agamben has revealed himself to be rather critical of Rancière given that, first of all, Rancière is still an exceptionalist thinker and, second, he is ultimately attached to some form of constituted power. While everything political in Rancière challenges constituted power, which Rancière associates with the police, politics also always moves in the direction of a newly constituted—more equal—order. With the notion of destituent potential, Agamben is precisely trying to steer clear from this.
In his thought about anarchist democracy, which is part of his thinking against the monarchical that I discussed at the end of the previous chapter, Stathis Gourgouris may have drawn the right conclusion on the basis of Rancière’s central idea. If in an anarchist democracy as Rancière describes it everyone is equally entitled to govern, Gourgouris argues, then anarchist democracy is precisely unexceptional—for everyone, without exception. Following Emily Apter, he embraces the notion of an unexceptional politics:
I favor this notion because for me democracy is precisely the regime that does not make exceptions, if we are to take seriously Aristotle’s dictum of a politics where the ruler learns by being ruled, making thus the ruled simultaneously the rulers, in a determinant affirmation of an archè that has no precedent and no uniqueness but is shared by all. No exceptions. The obvious politics of partiality and discrimination or exclusion in so-called modern democracies testifies to their fraudulent use of the name. Contemporary democratic states are no more than liberal oligarchies.
As Gourgouris sees it, unexceptional politics goes against the theologization of politics (which he associates with Schmitt):
I am interested instead in a politics where nothing is miraculous, where indeed nothing is sacred, where there is no Homo Sacer [this is a reference, obviously, to Agamben’s project]. This would be an unexceptional politics, an untheologized politics. It would have to be necessarily an anarchic politics, as democratic politics is at the core, insofar as archè is unexceptionally shared by all and therefore lapses as a singular principle. Anarchy as a mode of rule—democratic rule par excellence—raises a major challenge to the inherited tradition of sovereignty in modernity.
When it comes to politics, many artists would be ready to embrace this. They would be ready to embrace the unexceptionalism of such an anarchist democracy. However, when it comes to art, the situation appears to be very different. Unlike “unexceptional politics,” “unexceptional art” receives a much less warm embrace, if it is welcomed at all. People, in particular artists, tend to find “unexceptional art” offensive. To think of art as unexceptional—now that goes against the very core of what we believe art is!
But that difference in reception leads to the strange situation that in art we praise what in politics we find dubious. To be fair, art and politics are different—so perhaps it is just fine to find dubious in politics what we praise in art. Perhaps we can pursue in art what we think can’t be pursued in politics, and perhaps it is better to pursue those things in art rather than in politics. Perhaps art is where we can exorcise the demons by whom we’d prefer not be haunted in politics. But to the extent that both art and politics operate in the imaginary, and in that sense mutually support each other (with artistic imaginaries passing into politics, and political imaginaries into art), art is not separate from politics—and vice versa. In part, that means one can expect some consistency between the two realms. When it comes to exceptionalism, it seems there is none: exceptionalism is treated as suspicious in politics, but loved in art. I have tried to nuance both claims, the former by pointing out multiple exceptionalisms in politics (some more dubious than others) and the latter by questioning the dubious exceptionalisms that structure the art world: aesthetically, economically, politically.
“Fine,” you will say. “I am convinced. Now show me some unexceptional art.”
“Durant’s Scaffold doesn’t make the cut, because you’ve presented it here as a work of monarchic art around which a democratic exceptionalism came into being. That’s exceptionalisms all around.”
“The only example of unexceptional art you have given is Robbins’s series ‘Complements,’ which is nice but not enough.”
“We want more.”
To this one must respond that unexceptional art is not an indexical notion. By this I mean that one cannot point at some art and say it is unexceptional, and then point at some other art and say it is not. As opposed to an ontology of unexceptional art, as opposed to a metaphysical definition that would capture its essence, one should think of the unexceptional as a concept naming a procedure or operation that unexceptionalizes the Schmittian exceptionalism constituting the art world. The unexceptional is in that sense a negative concept that cannot be positively defined.
However, there are certain people and realms in which the force of the unexceptional is potentially strong. Whereas aesthetic exceptionalism exists first and foremost on the side of the spectator, who takes in and fetishizes the work of art, the procedure or operation of the unexceptional takes place first and foremost with artists themselves, with those who make the work and know how the work was made; it also takes place with the art handlers, those who pack up and ship the work and install it in galleries, museums, or private homes. It takes place with those who sell artwork. It takes place with those who own artwork. It takes place with those who work in art environments (not only galleries or museums but also art schools, for example) and encounter art while it is being made, before it goes on show, and after the show is taken down. It appears, however, that the aesthetic exceptionalism associated first and foremost with the spectator has pervaded all of the above, in a kind of spectator-ization (to follow a famous analysis) of the artworld. Such a becoming-hegemonic of the spectator’s experience of art as exceptional has undone the unexceptionalism of art on all fronts.
To be close to art, however, is to be in proximity to the unexceptional. This does not require connaisseur-ship, at least not of the kind associated with aesthetic exceptionalism. It requires a kind of knowing, to be sure, a kind of connaître or savoir, but a knowing whose verticality has been thoroughly unworked, even if traces of it remain. It is to be hoped that, in a reverse move, the unexceptionalism of such a knowledge will one day take over the experience of the spectator, unworking their exceptionalism into the unexceptional, so that they will be able to see art for what it is: just art. There is something “secular” about this, in Edward Said’s sense of the term, in that it asks us to acknowledge first and foremost art’s worldliness. In the end, the artist at work is just that: at work in the world, doing what they do every day. Their art is just that: the unexceptional, worldly—secular—product of their labor.
The rest is aesthetic exceptionalism.